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 The Massachusetts Child

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Teachers offer views on boosting achievement

One of the biggest problems in public education is the persistence of achievement gaps, even in states like Massachusetts where standardized student test scores have risen overall. There is no shortage of ideas about how to reduce those gaps, but the individual teacher’s voice can often be drowned out in the debate.

The MTA collaborated with a Chicago-based organization, New Voice Strategies, to encourage teachers to share their ideas on the issue through an online forum called the MTA Voice Ideas Vision Action Teachers Idea Exchange.

The forum led to recommendations contained in a report, “Addressing Educational Inequities: Proposals for Narrowing the Achievement Gaps in Massachusetts’ Gateway Cities,” which was approved by the MTA Board of Directors. The report has been released by the MTA and is posted on the MTA website.

Through the initiative, more than 300 teachers in 24 Massachusetts “Gateway Cities” plus Cambridge and Somerville shared their views in a freewheeling online discussion. Active participants were then asked to join a writing collaborative to craft the recommendations.
 
“We hope that the MTA VIVA project inspires discussions at the local level about what schools and districts can do about the critically important issues that our teachers have raised,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “The wide variety of opinions expressed reminds us all that there is no single solution. Rather, there are a variety of strategies that can be effective if teachers, administrators, parents and community members all work together on behalf of students.”

The recommendations include:

  • Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing suspensions and promoting positive student behavior through in-school initiatives.
  • Expanding second-language acquisition programs.
  • Transforming teacher preparation and professional development to address the challenges of a diverse student population.
  • Strengthening school-community relations.
  • Using flexible staffing schedules and collaboration with community-based organizations, among other methods, to lengthen the school day, providing enrichment and academic support for students and shared planning time for education staff.
  • Encouraging Gateway Cities to collaborate on initiatives and jointly seek grant funding.

Gateway Cities are midsized urban centers that often serve as the “gateway” into Massachusetts for immigrant families. Many of these communities, including Holyoke, Springfield, Lawrence and Lowell, were former manufacturing centers.They have faced significant social and economic challenges since manufacturing has been in decline in the United States.

Education is often seen as the best means for building stronger economies in these communities, yet — as in Boston — student performance and graduation rates are ignificantly lower in Gateway Cities than in the rest of the state. For example, the five-year graduation rate for high school students is just 69 percent in the Gateway Cities. It is 72 percent in Boston and 91 percent in the rest of the state.

One of the biggest challenges for school districts in the Gateway Cities is that they serve a relatively high percentage of English language learners. Among other recommendations, the MTA VIVA teachers call on districts to do a better job of identifying ELL students who have learning disabilities so they can receive appropriate services at a young age.

They also encourage districts to teach native English language speakers a second language while teaching ELL students English.

On the issue of suspensions, the report recommends, “End all ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ disciplinary programs and policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules, and limit both in-school and out of-school suspensions to only the most serious disruptions.”

The report also recommends strengthening school-community relations by, among other measures, extending school building hours “to allow students to have a safe place for before- and after-school activities” and establishing “home-school visitation programs” such as one in effect in parts of Springfield.

The authors recommend that Gateway City administrators work more closely together to share ideas and professional development opportunities and to jointly apply for
grants.

The teacher-writers for the MTA VIVA project and the districts in which they teach are: Nancy Hilliard and James Kobialka, Worcester; Joel Patterson, Cambridge; Chelsea Mullins, Springfield; and Kathleen Sullivan, Malden.